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Groundhog Day Forecasts and Climate History

Photo of a groundhog
©iStock mirecca

Every February 2, a crowd of thousands gathers at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to await a special forecast from a groundhog named Phil. If the 20-pound groundhog emerges and sees his shadow, the United States can expect six more weeks of winter weather according to legend. But, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, we can expect warmer temperatures and the arrival of an early spring.

Even though he’s been forecasting since 1887, Phil’s track record for the entire country isn’t perfect. To determine just how accurate he is, we’ve compared U.S. national temperatures with Phil’s forecasts. On average, Phil has gotten it right 40% of the time over the past 10 years.

Phil’s 2019 Forecast

In 2019, Phil forecast a "short winter" when he did not see his shadow and predicted an early spring. In fact, the contiguous United States saw below average temperatures in both February and March of last year.

The average contiguous U.S. temperature during February was 32.0°F, 1.8°F below the 20th century average. This ranked among the coldest third of the 125-year period of record and was the coolest February since 2010.

Much-below- to below-average temperatures were observed from the West Coast to the Great Lakes. Montana and North Dakota ranked second coldest on record. CaliforniaNebraskaSouth Dakota, and Washington state ranked among their 10 coldest Februaries on record. The average monthly temperature for Great Falls, Montana, was nearly 28°F below normal and more than 10°F colder than the previous record set back in 1989. Havre, Montana, also broke a record which was 28°F below normal for the month and bested the previous record by 7°F, set just 12 months prior. This was the coldest February for the state of Montana since 1936.

However, much-above-average temperatures were observed across the Southeast. Florida had its second warmest February on record. Six additional states across the Southeast had a top 10 warm February. Naples, Florida, recorded its warmest February day on the 19th and also the earliest occurrence for a 90°F day on record during the calendar year. Records for Naples began in 1942.

During March, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 40.7°F, 0.8°F below the 20th century average. This ranked in the middle third of the 125-year period of record.

Below-average temperatures were observed in the Northwest, the Great Plains and across portions of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. A small pocket of record-cold temperatures was evident across a portion of Washington state.

 Arizona and New Mexico had above-average temperatures during March, while most of the contiguous U.S. experienced near-average temperatures for the month.

Phil’s First Forecast

In 1887, when he made his debut as the official groundhog forecaster for the entire country, Phil saw his shadow. His first prediction of six more weeks of winter was accurate for a few regions, but it came up short for several others.

According to the February 1887 Monthly Weather Review Form, the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and West saw temperatures well below normal. The Southeast and Gulf states saw temperatures well above normal during the month. And, according to the March 1887 Monthly Weather Review Form, the Northeast, Great Lakes region, Ohio Valley, and Southeast saw temperatures well below normal. Areas west of the Mississippi River valley saw temperatures above normal.

Predicting the Arrival of Spring Is Difficult

Predicting the arrival of spring for an entire country, especially one with such varied regional climates as the United States, isn’t easy! However, if you’re interested in doing your own analysis, check out our Climate at a Glance tool to access historical U.S. monthly temperature data. More of Phil’s past predictions are also available from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

For an overview of some fun facts about Groundhog Day and the accuracy of these furry forecasters, check out our infographic.

To see the latest climate outlooks, visit NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. For the current weather forecast in your area, check out your local National Weather Service forecast office.

2020 Groundhog Day Infographic

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